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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, op.61 (1806) [37:56]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Violin Concerto in D, op.77 (1878) [37:06]
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Dmitri Mitropoulos (Beethoven)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (Brahms)
rec. New York, 2, 4 February 1936 (Brahms); 9 February 1956 (Beethoven) ADD
IDIS 6528 [75:04] 


Few people would disagree if I were to say that Jascha Heifetz was the greatest violinist of the 20th century. He had a flawless technique, which he always put at the service of the composer and an ability to communicate directly with his audience. However, sometimes there appears to be a coldness to his playing and a detaching of his intellect from interpretation. All these elements of his character are in these two performances in abundance.

When listening to his studio recordings it’s easy to hear which works he felt especial sympathy with – concertos by Sibelius, Walton, Korngold, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, chamber works by Dohnanyi, Schubert, miniatures by Saint-Sans, his own arrangements of Gershwin and others and, possibly the best of all, his unaccompanied Bach. Please forgive me for any of your favourites which I have failed to mention; these are, literally, the first recordings which sprang to mind. In a recording career which stretched from 1917 to 1972 there weren’t many major works he didn’t record. It’s an amazing legacy. Whilst there are some of his recordings which don’t readily speak to me, some of the recordings of the classical repertoire, for instance, I am always conscious of the intelligence of his approach.

Here are two concertos which, to be honest, I wouldn’t put in my top ten Heifetz interpretations list. However, these live performances do have that something special, which is usually missing in the recording studio. There’s an electricity and fire, the sheer joy of making music before the public. 

The recordings are of their time and age (50 and 70 years old) but have been cleaned up as best they could. Obviously the Beethoven is the better of the two. What strikes one first about this interpretation is that once Mitropoulos sets his tempo it never wavers, except for some subtle rubato. The orchestra is excellent; attentive to the soloist at all times, but coming into its own in the tuttis. The first movement cadenza is, perhaps, too big and modern for the classical era, not really sitting comfortably with the rest of the work but what wonders Heifetz makes of it. He relaxes for the slow movement and is joyous and playful in the finale. It’s also most satisfying that the tempi chosen are faster than we have come to expect and how well they work. I do sometimes feel that these days the direction moderato has been added to lots of tempo indications. The music soars. It’s easy to understand the spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement. The audience needs that release after such a superb performance.

My one reservation is that because of the balance I sometimes feel that Heifetz is sitting in my lap. Once you get over that feeling you’ll settle back and allow him to weave his magic. This is Beethoven according to Heifetz, but none the worse for that.

The recording of the Brahms is a different matter entirely. The big problem is that it sounds as if it was recorded with a condenser microphone - the kind you used to get with a Walkman. Here the sound recedes into the distance after a loud passage and gradually makes its way back towards you. Therefore the start is quiet - obviously it follows the applause as soloist and conductor walked onto the platform - but soon becomes clear. The first tutti is thrilling and full then away goes the sound and so on. Like Mitropoulos, once Toscanini sets a tempo it never wavers, except for rubato. Heifetz is more mellow, and more comfortable, in this music; after all, he was a violinist of the romantic school. All I can really say is that like the Beethoven the first movement is full of drama - with a cadenza at odds with the surrounding music. The slow movement is gorgeous but with a backwardly placed oboe. The finale full of fun.

For Heifetz fans this is a must-have disk. I urge all students of the violin, and professionals as well, to listen to some of the very best violin playing you’ll ever hear. For the general listening public these are very special interpretations. If you can overcome the sound there is much to enjoy and admire, especially that frisson you get from a live performance. 

This might not be the Beethoven and Brahms we are used to, but it is the fiddling we desire. 

Nowadays we have the vision of Heifetz as being able to play anything without any fear because of his supreme technique but there is one story which puts our perceptions into a different light. When Louis Gruenberg was writing his concerto for Heifetz the two men worked closely together on the intricate solo part. The story goes that at one point the violinist complained that the solo part was becoming too complicated – to which the composer simply said, “You’re Heifetz, aren’t you?”


Bob Briggs 




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